In this chapter, Ezra returns to Jerusalem from exile.
This chapter has two main sections. The first section is Ezra’s autobiography and the second section is King Artaxerxes’s letter of authorization for Ezra. I will discuss these two sections in turn.
Beginning with Ezra’s biography, from his genealogy (v. 1-5) we see that Ezra is a priest, a descendant of Aaron and perhaps more interestingly, a descendant of Zadok. In the book of Chronicles, Zadok showed up several times as a prominent figure in the story, and I suggested at the time that it was because the descendants of Zadok may have been increasingly important in the post-exilic era when Chronicles was written. What we see here is that Ezra, one of the authors of the post-exilic histories, is himself a descendant of Zadok. According to Jewish tradition, Chronicles was also written by Ezra which if it were true, would help to explain the bias in Chronicles towards the priestly line of Zadok, though that bias could also be explained by other factors so I don’t think it necessarily indicates Ezra’s authorship.
We also see that Ezra is a scribe, which is something I mentioned in the introduction. I am very interested in learning about the scribal class, because the Jewish scribes are the secret hands behind the OT. Think about it: how many books have we read where we do not know the author? Basically all of them? Especially for the histories like Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, many books in the OT do not have a specific author and it may not even be possible that they had a single author when the book spans over more than a hundred years of time. Behind every book in the OT there is a lineage of scholars who wrote, guarded and transmitted the book down from generation to generation until it reached the present day.
As in the case of Ezra, many of these scholars would have been passionate individuals who dedicated their lives to study the Law, practice it and teach it to others. While many of them lived and died without recognition in modern times, they did not live without making a difference. In fact, I would suspect that many of the scholars who curated the biblical books did not have realized how their diligence to preserve the history of God’s interactions with Israel would change the world. Without men such as Ezra, who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD”, we might not have the Law with us today and simply put, our knowledge of God and his salvation plan would have been diminished.
Verse 7 also tells us that Ezra went up with priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and “temple servants”. This is another similarity between the book of Ezra and Chronicles, because Chronicles spent a great deal of space discussing the various components of the temple ministry (see e.g. 1 Chron 9, 26). Since all of these groups of people were involved with the temple ministry, it is another way of showing Ezra’s focus on the temple ministry as his central mission for traveling to Jerusalem.
That said, I would also like to point out that Ezra returns to Jerusalem after the temple has been finished. The main people involved with building the temple were Jerubbabel, Jeshua, Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2). Ezra is coming in a second wave of refugees, and while he writes about the construction of the temple (likely having interviewed sources who were there), he was not himself involved with its construction.
So what was Ezra’s purpose? Why did he spend four, dangerous months hiking through modern day Iran and Iraq (v. 9)? Ezra’s immediate purpose is given in the letter from Artaxerxes. Ezra is being sent on behalf of the king for several reasons: to “inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 14), to bring the king’s offering for the temple (v. 15) and to appoint judges for the Trans-Euphrates province to enforce Jewish religious law on their people. As such, it appears that Ezra is being placed in a role of local authority, being given power to enforce not only their own Law, but also the laws of the king (v. 26).
While these are the reasons the king sent Ezra, I’m not sure that they are the reasons Ezra went. I think Ezra went to Jerusalem because firstly, like most other religious Jews, he wanted to return to the land of the covenant with God. Second, I think Ezra wanted to fulfill his role as a scribe: to instruct the people in Jerusalem and ensure that they are properly obeying the Law of the LORD.
The terms of the letter to Ezra are highly favorable, giving him liberty to collect money as needed from the royal treasury, an offering for the temple, freedom from taxes, and authority to enforce the religious and royal laws. It’s no wonder that Ezra repeatedly thanks God for his favorable treatment (v. 6, 27, 28).
Ultimately, Ezra is going to Jerusalem to see if the people are properly following the Law. In the next chapter, we will learn more about Ezra’s companions and journey.